Tag Archives: Barack Obama

#ObamaCommencement2020: The Westport Connection

It’s pretty clear that most American high school seniors will not have traditional graduations this year.

Caps and gowns, speeches, photos, the parties afterward — all will fall victim to COVID-19.

Searching for something to salvage, a senior named Lincoln thought: Why not ask Barack Obama to deliver a “national commencement address”?

On Tuesday he tweeted the former president. He added the hashtag #ObamaCommencement2020.

Then he watched his idea take off. As of last night, over 207,000 people had liked Lincoln’s tweet. It was retweeted over 41,000 times.

What makes this “06880”-worthy is that the student — Lincoln Debenham — is a former Westporter.

He lives now in Los Angeles, where he will graduate — with or without Obama — from Eagle Rock High School. But he’s got deep roots here.

He grew up here. He started at Staples High, before moving. Like his older brother Eli, he follows politics avidly.

(“06880” profiled Eli in 2016, when he helped run the phone banks for the Westport Democratic Town Committee. The next year, the entire Debenham family was featured, hosting their traditional Thanksgiving dinner for dozens of random people.)

Clockwise from top left: Eli, Lincoln and Matt Debenham, Caissie St. Onge.

But now Lincoln has snagged the national spotlight alone.

His message to Obama said: “Like most high school/college seniors, I’m saddened by the loss of milestone events, proms & graduation. In an unprecedented time, it would give us great comfort to hear your voice.

“We ask you to consider giving a national commencement speech to the class of 2020.”

The former president has not yet responded, though he was reported to be aware of the request. And flattered.

Meanwhile, national media picked up the story.

Lincoln told CNN that Obama is “someone who speaks for my generation. that’s what this is about. Hearing that voice of hope again.”

Like Lincoln Debenham, we’ve got our fingers crossed.

Jeff Scher’s Amazing, Graceful Video

In 2015, a man killed 9 men and women at a Charleston church.

In the midst of his powerful eulogy, President Obama sang “Amazing Grace.” Zoe Mulford wrote a song about that moment. Joan Baez recorded it.

Now Jeff Scher has brought that inspiring song about death and hope to life.

The 1972 Staples High School graduate is a filmmaker and animator. He’s now back in Westport, working in a Cross Highway studio a few steps from his house.

Scher has carved out a compelling niche. His hundreds of drawings in “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” helped earn the HBO documentary about a Holocaust survivor a place in the permanent display of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

Jeff Scher

He created the official video for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children.” Bob Dylan and Paul Simon hired him to make holiday videos. A short film about summer and water — “L’eau Life” — features many Westport scenes.

But right now, his Obama/Baez is creating the biggest buzz.

Scher’s hundreds of hand-drawn watercolor and pastel images draw viewers in to a story they already know.

The challenge, the artist says, was to convey the intense emotion of the president’s eulogy — but in the end, Baez’s song was about someone else singing a different song. It’s also about murder.

Fortunately, Scher says, the tune is “beautifully written, with a clear narrative. It opens slowly, pulls you in, and has an incredible emotional arc.”

And, he notes, “Somehow Obama, with his humble singing voice, turned grief into grace. With humility, compassion, and a 200-year-old hymn, he made us feel that the evil deeds of a sick individual could not shake the bonds of our common humanity.”

He saw his job as “framing” Mulford’s song, rather than “illustrating” it. “I did not want to get in the way of the lyrics,” he explains.

He told the Atlantic, which premiered the video: “I wanted the scenes to feel like they were blooming from the white of the paper, like a photograph in a developer or a memory emerging from a cloud.”

The song and video are called “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

Thanks to Zoe Mulford, Joan Baez — and Jeff Scher — the result is both amazing and graceful.

Dorian Kail Does The White House

Yesterday’s “06880” post about the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act — and the formation of a possible town commission on disabilities — resonated with Dorian Kail.

The Westport native manages the professional wheelchair division at New York Road Runners (including the marathon). She’s been awed by the accomplishments of the men and women who use wheels to run.

One of her top athletes — the fastest wheelchair marathoner of all time — is Tatyana McFadden. She won a lawsuit against her high school to allow wheelchair participants in sports.

Last week, McFadden invited Kail to the White House, to celebrate the ADA’s anniversary. McFadden and Kail met the president; Kail also had a quick conversation with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Bob Dole (who as a senator helped pass the ADA).

Dorian Kail and Vice President Joe Biden.

Dorian Kail and Vice President Joe Biden, at the White House.

Thanks for all you’ve done, Dorian. Keep on pushing — and keep helping these remarkable athletes run.

Dorian Kail and Tatyana McFadden stroll through the White House.

Dorian Kail and Tatyana McFadden stroll through the White House.

Former senator Bob Dole -- now 92 years old -- asked for a selfie with Dorian Kail.

Former senator Bob Dole — now 92 years old — asked for a selfie with Dorian Kail.

Charlotte: One Student’s View

Sanders McNair — a 2010 Staples graduate — is now a senior at Wake Forest University. He and 9 classmates spent the past few days at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Here is his report. I hope that if readers comment, they’re as objective — and civil — as Sanders is.

We did a ton of different activities. We spent some time at the sets of several MSNBC shows, chatting and taking pictures with Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews and Melissa Harris-Perry (a Wake Forest alum).

Sanders McNair (far left) and fellow Wake Forest University students, with political commentator (and WFU alum) Melissa Harris-Perry.

We went to a forum for college students hosted by the Atlantic and National Journal featuring Chelsea Clinton, Kal Penn, Chuck Todd, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed and several others.

Though the venue change for President Obama’s acceptance speech meant we couldn’t see it in person, we did go to a large watch party next door.

Sanders saw San Antonio mayor (and keynote speaker) Julian Castro giving an impromptu interview.

Still, we saw many speeches in person that were not seen on TV by the rest of the country, including ones by Michelle Obama, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, Lily Ledbetter, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and more.

Additionally we did interviews with reporters, wrote up stories for various blogs and left some time for the touristy things.

I’m extremely thankful I got the chance to go to the DNC. I was a bit skeptical that the convention would just be one big party (both senses of the word). There was plenty of that, but there was much more.

No, conventions don’t present new policy ideas or change minds with one speech. However, I really appreciated hearing the personal stories of so many regular people (an incredibly diverse group at the DNC, I might add) — those we were standing in hour-long lines with, and those who we sat next to during speeches.

Overall, I’m just glad I got to experience an event that allowed me to both see the glitzy, celebrity side of party conventions, and the side of the regular people who came to support their candidate.

Martha Aasen: Quite A Life Of Convention

In 1960, Martha Aasen was living in California. The Democratic National Convention was held in Los Angeles.

Martha came from a family of avid Democrats. Her father was a convention delegate from their native Mississippi. Her brother wangled a job as a driver for Stuart Symington, one of several men still jostling for the nomination.

Martha and her husband Larry got a room with the Mississippi delegation, in a rundown Spanish-style hotel on the outskirts of L.A. They had just checked in when another candidate appeared. It was John F. Kennedy, on his way to meet the Wyoming delegation at the same “crummy hotel.”

Martha walked up to the Massachusetts senator. He took her hand, and looked straight at her. Half a century later, she remembers his “unbelievable charisma.”

Kennedy’s visit paid off. On the night of the roll call, Wyoming’s 15 votes gave him the nomination over his closest rival, Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson.

Though longtime Westporters Martha and Larry Aasen have been active in Democratic politics — and attending conventions — ever since, 1960 was not their first. Four years earlier, one of Larry’s North Dakota Republican friends got them into the Republican convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. They watched as President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon were renominated.

Fannie Lou Hamer faces the Democratic credentials committee.

In 1964 the Aasens were in Atlantic City. Martha’s mother was a Mississippi delegate. That year, the biracial Freedom Democratic Party challenged the seating of the state’s all-white delegation. Fannie Lou Hamer gave a rousing speech. The governor urged his white delegation to walk out. Most did. Martha’s mother was one of the 3 or 4 who did not.

Forty years later, in 2004, Martha was a delegate at the Boston convention.  Connecticut was seated next to Mississippi. Thousands of delegates — of all races — paid tribute to the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, and other brave people who fought for civil rights.

Martha and Larry Aasen.

The Boston convention also featured an electrifying keynote speech by Illinois legislator Barack Obama. “Everyone there knew we were hearing someone special,” Martha recalls.

Martha was in Denver 4 years ago, when Obama was nominated for president.

She’d been back in Los Angeles in 2000, too. That was one of the few times  Connecticut had good seats. They were seated right in front, next to Tennessee. The reason, of course: Al Gore’s running made was Joe Lieberman.

Martha missed the 1968 Chicago convention — perhaps the most famous of all — as well as the others before 2000. She was working for the United Nations, and could not be actively involved in domestic politics.

Now 82, she looks forward to the upcoming Charlotte convention. The event has changed since the JFK days — more security, less spontaneity, and the nominee is known in advance — but they’re still exciting.

“It’s more of a pep rally,” Martha says. “You hear speeches, and realize why you believe so strongly in what you do. You go home energized, eager to support your candidate.”

And who knows? Some day, once again, a candidate may come calling on Connecticut. Just as John F. Kennedy did with Wyoming back when he needed a few more votes, wherever they were.

The Presidential Parade

Two presidents — one sitting, the other who never stops moving — came to Fairfield County this weekend.

Westport entrepreneur and senior software developer Nick Pisarro was there for both.

Click here for the speech (or here for the video) for President Obama at Bridgeport’s Harbor Yard, and here for the speech (here for the video) for Bill Clinton at Norwalk’s SoNo Fieldhouse.

Barack In Bridgeport

President Obama comes to Bridgeport this Saturday.

He’ll be at Harbor Yard arena, campaigning for Democratic candidates 3 days before the gubernatorial and senatorial elections.

I plan to be there — one of the items on my to-do-before-I-die list is to see a sitting president — but I also wonder how many people will make the connection to a similar Bridgeport event half a century ago?

Two days before the presidential election — Sunday, Nov. 6, 1960 — John F. Kennedy came to Connecticut.  Nearly 50,000 people waited hours in the cold rain  — until 3 a.m. — to hear the Massachusetts senator speak from a 2nd-floor Waterbury hotel balcony.

After a couple hours’ sleep, Kennedy attended early mass at a church next door.  He headed off to Hartford, New Haven and — finally — a Sunday afternoon rally in Bridgeport.

I was in the Bridgeport crowd.  I don’t remember much at all — I was just in 2nd grade, brought there by my father — but I do recall a tremendous sense of excitement, before JFK arrived and throughout his speech.

Connecticut had not gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since FDR, in 1944.  But in the aftermath of Kennedy’s electrifying Connecticut visit, state Democratic chairman John Bailey predicted he would beat Richard Nixon by 30,000 votes.

Bailey was wrong.  JFK won by 91,000.

Much has changed in 50 years.  This year’s election is not for president, and indications are it will not be a good one for Democrats.

But once again, on the weekend before an important vote, Connecticut will enjoy the presidential spotlight.

Dan Chenok Opens Up Government

Barack Obama has a Facebook.  So does the CIA.  Chris Dodd takes time out from plummeting in the polls to Twitter.

It’s a new age in Washington.  President Obama has pledged to use technology to improve government performance and increase openness.  His success will depend on people like Dan Chenok.

The 1982 Staples grad chose a very different career path than his mother and stepfather, noted artists Ann and Bert Chernow.  A lifelong policy wonk with degrees from Columbia and Harvard, Dan put financial aid forms online for the Department of Education back in 1995, when dialup modems were the bomb.

His fulltime gig is with technology consultant Pragmatics. But Dan ran a tech group for Obama’s transition team, and still advises them.  Last week he was on a webinar with Vivek Kundra, the nation’s first Chief Information Officer.

Dan knows that open government faces concerns about national security.  And of course the federal bureaucracy does not measure time in nanoseconds.  “A web year is very different from a budget year,” he notes.

But Dan Chenok is an optimist. “The president has known the internet for half  his working life,” he says. “He’s the first Information Age president we’ve had.”

Although he’s a bit slow responding to wall posts.